A Sales & Marketing executive and long-time friend, Steve Goubeaux, once gave me a very insightful thought I’d like to share with you today. When I asked him for a quote for something I was writing, he said: “If you don’t go, where you don’t go; you won’t know, what you don’t know.” In other words, look for innovation in the places you never look.
The more I have repeated that bit of insight, the more profound it has become. We are all creatures of habit. So are larger organizations. Doing things the way we’ve always done them is comfortable, familiar and easy. It’s human nature to choose these “easy ways.”
Do you drive to work the same way every day? Probably! Do you read the same publications—or the same type of publications? Sure! How about TV and the Internet? Watching the same group of shows or using the same set of websites is also a common habit. When you do this, what do you get? You get a lot of familiar and comfortable feelings.
But true innovation often doesn’t make us comfortable. It makes us uncomfortable. And yet, it is in that discomfort that the new ways, the new ideas and the new feelings come to light. When you drive to work via a different route, you see different places and sights. If you go to the newsstand and peruse the magazines that you never otherwise look at, you will see things you simply would never think about otherwise.
Thus my title for this piece: Looking for Innovation in the “Wrong Places.” “Wrong places” is obviously a subjective term, but it refers to “wrong” in the context of “out of your comfort zone.” Even if your excursions to new routes, new restaurants, new media sites, etc. makes you uncomfortable, it can give you new perspectives—and those are where new ideas are discovered and innovation is born.
Remember the terms “a burr under the saddle” or a “stone in your shoe.” The principle is the same. These small things that cause irritation or discomfort also lead to action—to alleviate the source of the discomfort. Even for a pearl to form in an oyster, a small grain of sand—an impurity—is required. If the current products have small irritating flaws, that can lead to new, innovative products that address those flaws.
One relatively recent example is a new measuring cup from Pyrex. Pyrex has made measuring cups for decades. They have been largely the same, made of glass to withstand the rigors of hot liquids and more recently with a useful innovation of flexible lids for use in microwave heating. In the past, it has been necessary to raise the cup to eye level or bend over to see if the contents were at the desired level, even with markings read from the outside of the cup.
Now the new Pyrex measuring cups have tapered walls and measuring lines that are visible/readable from the inside. Looking down directly into the cup without the need to raise it or to bend over, allows the user to see the level directly and much more conveniently. Incorporating this simple innovation in a glass measuring cup is an example of looking at things in a different way. (Prior “direct view” measuring cups have been made of plastic and incorporated irregular shapes to accomplish the design. Plastic is a much less desirable material in both heat resistance and microwave use.) The new tapered measuring cups are a result of deciding to change the shape and reading measurements from what has traditionally been the “wrong place”—but from a user standpoint, is clearly the “right place.” The result is a simple innovation that creates a much more useful measuring cup for your kitchen needs.
Next time, drive to work a different way. Go to a different store or restaurant. And read some periodicals or web media you’d normally never read. Watch TV shows you never watch and surf web sites you never visit. After all, you never know what you might discover. And always remember Steve’s words: “If you don’t go, where you don’t go; you won’t know, what you don’t know.”
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John L. Mariotti is President and CEO of The Enterprise Group. He was President of Huffy Bicycles, Group President of Rubbermaid Office Products Group, and now serves as a Director on several corporate boards. He has written eight business books. His electronic newsletter THE ENTERPRISE is published weekly. His website is Mariotti.net.